Touring on two wheels, Stephanie Holmes takes in Sri Lanka's smaller details to find a true sense of place.
On a clear day you can see forever, but today Lion Rock is hiding its mysterious beauty behind a heavy shroud of mist. From the bottom, we can't see the top of this famous Sri Lankan monolith, also known as Sigiriya. From the top, it's impossible to see further than the precarious edge lying just past the ancient temple walls.
Despite the weather, this former king's palace — built in the fifth century on top of the 200m-tall rock in Central Sri Lanka — is mind-blowing. Tourists flock here, pouring off tour buses and stretching cramped limbs ready to climb the 1200 steps to the summit.
Our group is already warmed up and ready to go because our journey to Lion Rock started with a 15km bike ride from our hotel in Dambulla. It's day six of a 14-day Intrepid Travel Cycle Sri Lanka holiday, and our group has quickly realised this is the best way to see this diverse country.
Our itinerary takes us from the beachside town of Negombo, up to the ancient Unesco World Heritage sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy, down through national parks full of elephants and leopards, rest days at popular south coast beaches, ending in the compact yet chaotic capital city of Colombo.
A team of local guides helps keep us on track — a main tour leader, a cycle guide, and two drivers looking after our support vehicles. Behind the scenes they're like Cinderella's magical footmen; when we're done cycling for the day and putting our feet up with a cold beer, they're cleaning and servicing our bikes, confirming our accommodation, booking meals and excursions, and generally making sure everything runs smoothly.
Some of the roads we ride are chaotic; buses and trucks and tuktuks and mopeds all jostling for space, police officers in military-like uniforms sharply blowing their whistles to let people cross the road. But, unlike Auckland, the drivers are forgiving of cyclists, allowing our guides to stop traffic so we can zip through intersections and continue our journey unscathed.
Here, you're just as likely to have to swerve to avoid a scurrying mongoose, a cow, a monitor lizard, or even an elephant, as you are a car. Mangy dogs are everywhere, with uniform sandy fur and constant scratching; sometimes they bark and give chase, but mostly they lie lazily on the warm tarmac, barely twitching an ear as we cycle by.
On the country roads, where we whizz through jungle, rice paddies and tea plantations, we're greeted warmly by everyone we pass. Sri Lankans seem to be unendingly welcoming to tourists, offering a range of shy smiles, handshakes and curious stares, with the common question of "How do you like Sri Lanka?" The answer is easy: I love it, from the minute I arrive to the moment I reluctantly step on the plane to head home.
Our group is a mixed bunch — the youngest, a 24-year-old vibrant Australian; the oldest, a 70-something, fun-loving American; a good balance of couples, singles and friends travelling in pairs.
Some are experienced cyclists who have enjoyed previous group holidays around the world; others, like me, are first-timers.
I quickly become a convert. Seeing the country by bike gives more of a sense of place than you get on a tour bus. Instead of being one step removed, a pane of glass separating you from the outside world, you're able to hear the sounds and inhale the smells that bring a place to life. My memories of Sri Lanka will always be tinged with the scent of spices and sandalwood incense and fresh magnolia blossoms, the sound of temple bells and the susurration of prayers carried on the breeze.
Cycling also allows you to notice smaller details you might miss from the comfort of an air-conditioned coach.
On our early morning ride to Lion Rock, we pass a Buddhist monk at the side of the road, a family praying at his feet, their hands lightly touching his burgundy robes. As I pass on my bike, I turn back for another glance and catch one of the little boys peering around the monk's feet, a cheeky smile on his face while he gives me a surreptitious wave.
We encounter children all the time; families stand outside their homes to give curious glances at this bunch of sweaty tourists puffing their way up hills; schoolchildren rush from their classrooms waving frantically and shouting "Bye" at the top of their voices. That's another sound that will always come to mind when I think of Sri Lanka — a joyous "bye" from a school full of kids. We don't get the same reception when we pass in our minibus, and I know I'll be disappointed when I'm riding my bike back home with no children giving me an urgent, grinning greeting.
Tourism is starting to boom for Sri Lanka. The civil war years, where the Tamil Tigers fought the Sri Lankan Army, kept the visitors away, but since the end of the war in 2009 they're coming back in record numbers. Last year, digital analysis company Global Data named Sri Lanka the fourth fastest growing tourism market in the world (after Iceland, Japan and Hungary, with Chile completing the top five). Lonely Planet named it their top destination for 2019, and Instagram posts showing the beauty of its many regions are attracting more and more intrigued travellers.
Our itinerary often keeps us away from the tourist trail. In fact, we spend so much time riding through back-roads and off-the-beaten-track villages that it comes as a shock when we do encounter other tourists. It feels like someone has shared our secret without our permission — how did these other visitors find out about the country we've discovered and taken so fully into our hearts?
Pleasingly, there are still places where tourists seem to be a novelty. In Hatton, a ramshackle town in the tea plantations of the Central Province, we're still dripping with sweat after a gruelling 20km uphill ride as we check into our hotel. But that doesn't stop a huge wedding party resplendent in colourful saris and sharp suits, crowding around us to take photos, plonking their bemused children on our laps while they snap away like celebrity-hungry paparazzi.
It's around Hatton that we experience some of the best cycling the tour has to offer. We arrive from Kandy, taking a powder-blue train that makes light work of the steep climb higher and higher into the hills. The scenery gets better with every bend and soon we can't resist joining the locals in hanging out of the open doorways. It's precarious but worth it to get a shot of the train snaking its way around the hills, the lush green tea fields in the background.
Thanks to our support crew, our bikes are waiting for us at Hatton station when we arrive. We weave our way through the busy town centre, bustling with colour and noise on a Saturday morning. Soon we're in the plantations, making our way downhill on bumpy roads, following the path of a milky blue lake. The views are stunning and the ride takes double the time it normally would as we stop often to take photos.
There are crowds of people at regular intervals — families and children who give the ubiquitous "bye" greeting and it seems they have been waiting to cheer us on our way. At the first rest stop, where we scoff sugary bananas and biscuits, we realise this time the crowds aren't there for us, but for a girls' school 5km race. The front runner zooms past us, taking the hills and potholed ground in her barefoot stride.
A blue shack by the side of the road is too photogenic to resist. It looks out over the tea fields, with a colourful umbrella shading two plastic chairs. As I pull out my camera, two girls appear and smile shyly. We buy freshly made snacks from their mother inside the stall — four spiced, savoury doughnuts for 30 rupee (25c).
The road is dotted with stalls selling piles of fresh pineapples, dried chillies and bright-orange king coconuts, Hindu temples the colour of slate, rogue puppies, laundry laid out to dry on bushes, and the ever-present greetings of the children watching us go by.
We pass women picking tea leaves in their beautiful bright saris and, at times, the scent of fresh tea overpowers the air. The sensory feast helps distract from the steady uphill cycling, and the prospect of an actual feast at the end of the ride helps spur on my burning muscles.
The exertion of the cycling helps to balance out another of Sri Lanka's main attractions: its food. If it wasn't for the multiple kilometres cycled each day, I know I'd be going home with multiple new kilograms. Each day, a new variation on a Sri Lankan staple — rice and curry, eaten by locals mainly for lunch but available for breakfast and dinner, too. Delicately spiced fish or meat curries come with perfectly cooked rice, as well as side dishes of dhal, aloo gobi, coconut sambal, dried fish, eggplant, beetroot, roti and poppadoms. For dessert, a simple pot of natural yoghurt to take away the chilli sting. The prices astound me every time; away from the tourist traps you can often get a huge rice and curry meal for less than 500 rupees ($4), and sometimes even cheaper than that.
Liquid refreshment comes in the form of the local Lion beer, a basic yet refreshing lager served in 625ml bottles, usually for around 300-400 rupee. I'm not sure there's ever been a more satisfying beer than a Lion at the end of a 72km cycling day.
Sometimes the downhills are as taxing as the up. After completing our steepest climbs — sections of tea plantation countryside where we face 15 and 22 per cent inclines — the bumpy descent wreaks havoc on my wrists. My hands go numb with pins and needles, causing me to fear I'll lose my grip and fly over the handlebars. But the scenery is enough of a distraction to put me at ease.
We descend through a mist of cloud to emerge in a stunningly beautiful forest of towering eucalyptus trees.
I find myself alone on a stretch of road, the pack leaders racing ahead, the slower riders falling behind. I revel in the peace, no sound other than birdsong and the whir of my bike chain as my pedals revolve.
Eucalyptus leaves fall slowly from the trees like confetti fired from a cannon at the end of a concert. I take it as my own personal ticker-tape parade; a celebration of a most rewarding holiday in a country where I'll leave a piece of my heart.
's 14-day Cycle Sri Lanka trip is priced from $2990pp, twin share, including accommodation, transport and most meals and activities. The trip starts in Negombo and finishes in Colombo, with departures throughout 2019.